The Best of Eastern European Capitals
I love Paris. I love London. I even love Rome, but why is it that when we start thinking of buying a ticket to Europe we don’t consider some of the lesser-known capital cities? Recently Jim and I have made it a point to really explore Eastern Europe more. We’ve found the cities to be loaded with beautiful architecture, delicious foods, and plenty to do. But do you know what the best part is? They are all a fraction of the cost of visiting Paris and London. Your money goes so much further; it’s such a good feeling to know that you can still travel to places relatively unknown and not have to break the bank to do it. Here are our top ten favorite Eastern European capital cities.
Table of Contents
- The Best of Eastern European Capitals
- The Best Eastern European Cities to Visit Before the Rest of the World
- Tallinn, Estonia
- Helsinki, Finland
- Ljubljana, Slovenia
- Riga, Latvia
- Vilnius, Lithuania
- Sofia, Bulgaria
- Belgrade, Serbia
- Skopje, Macedonia
- Bucharest, Romania
- Bratislava, Slovakia
As much as I love visiting the countryside, villages, and smaller cities everywhere I go, traveling to capital cities are such a good way to be introduced to the country. The capital is where you will find at least one major historical museum, an art museum, great restaurants, government buildings, and usually a fantastic pubic transportation system so you can easily get around. It’s also the easiest place to visit in each country since it’s always serviced with an international airports. I love to go to capital cities on the weekend or for day trips, but if I’m building a country-wide itinerary for two weeks or longer, I tend to get out of the city right away, then come back and do these things at the end after I’ve seen the rest. That way when I go to the museum and the artist is from X town, I’ve been there and can relate to it much better. I do know a lot of travelers that concentrate on just the capital and big cities of a country, though, because there is always so much to do.
Without further ado, here is my list of ten European capital cities that you should put on your travel itinerary. These are all ones that we’ve fallen in love with and think you will too. We’ve listed the must-see history and art museum, plus our recommendations for a restaurant and hotel. We hope it will get you started!
The Best Eastern European Cities to Visit Before the Rest of the World
Tallinn is one of the cities that really has been growing in popularity in the last few years. It is a small city, very walkable, and there is plenty to do. We enjoyed many of the museums, some tucked right into the wall towers, as well as the amazing food that they have to offer. Tallinn, more than most, celebrates their link to the Middle Ages with costumes, pubs, and people dressed up wandering the streets.
We had so much fun in this small city. We were there in winter, and it didn’t slow us down one bit. I’m sure it’s even more beautiful during the warmer months. We loved seeing all the sights of Tallinn, but we also did one other very cool thing that I’ve never heard of before, and that was finding out all about the history of marzipan, then making it and painting it.
History: Fat Margaret Maritime Museum
Art: Kumu Art Museum
Restaurant: Rataskaevu 16
From Tallinn we were fortunate enough to visit another amazing city, Helsinki. We discovered that Helsinki is cold. Very cold. We visited in winter, but sometimes I feel that you should go to a place when it’s the hardest. Needless to say, we had a little bit of time getting used to the bitter cold, but of course the locals are used to winter, and we saw folks swimming in the heated, seaside pools while we were bundled from head to toe. Along with the list of mandatory Helsinki tourist sites, we also warmed up in cafe after cafe. All of them were chic and cozy.
History: National Museum of Finland
Art: Ateneum Art Museum
Restaurant: Olo Ravintola
Hotel: Original Sokos Hotel Tapiola Garden Espoo
We visited this beautiful capital city on Sunday, which is always a good day to see what locals do. We walked around a flea market and joined the throngs of folks visiting the castle for lunch and shopping. With the Sava River running right through town, there are cafes, bakeries, and restaurants galore. We walked, gawked, and ate all day. Not only is Ljubljana a great destination, it’s also a fantastic jumping off point to a bunch of other amazing natural sights in Slovenia.
Here are some of our favorite posts in Ljubljana:
History: National Museum of Contemporary History
Art: National Gallery
Restaurant: Restavracija Strelec, in the Ljubljana castle
Hotel: Lesar Hotel Angel
We spent a weekend in Riga, at the end of fall so it was getting cool. Luckily, we were led around by a small group of locals, showing us things we might have discovered on our own but didn’t have to. We weren’t on a walking tour, but it’s one reason to take those free walking tours when you get to a city, you will always learn and see something you would have missed. Riga is also a medieval city, recognized by UNESCO, and it is gorgeous. We can’t wait to go back.
History: KGB Building File No. 1914/2014
Art: Latvian National Museum of Art
Hotel: Hotel Roma
Another winter foray into the east, this time we visited some teachers on an exchange and went to Kaunas and Trakai Castle in Lithuania gets extremely cold. We spent only a day in Vilnius but the stark and dreary weather just accentuated the main points of interest, since a lot of them revolve around the Soviet era. Great museums and beautiful architecture greet you on every street. The part we enjoyed the most was getting to know our hosts, drinking coffee, sharing the national snack and eating a special Lithuanian Apple Cake.
History: Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, National Museum
Art: National Art Gallery
Restaurant: Berneliu Uzeiga
Hotel: City Hotels Rūdninkai
We’ve been to Sofia twice; that’s how much we love it. Of all the cities we’ve visited, this one has many Ottoman and Byzantine remnants and churches that are so intriguing to visit. That with the amazing Bulgarian food, you can’t go wrong. We’ve spent lots of time in Bulgaria, and again that’s because we’ve enjoyed the interactions with the local people as well as all of the amazing food they serve. We took a week long road trip through the country, and just like we imagined, Sofia wasn’t anything like the rest of the country.
Here are some of the best posts we’ve written on this amazing destination:
History: National Institute of Archaeology with Museum
Art: Museum of Socialist Art
Restaurant: Restaurant Shtastliveca
Hotel: Les Fleurs Boutique Hotel
Belgrade isn’t quite as bright and shiny as some of the other Eastern European capitals, but as you walk along the main pedestrian street you are captivated by the sunken book shops, the hipster cafes, and it’s not hard to imagine how bleak life was only a couple of decades ago. Luckily while we were there in mid-summer the sun was shining, we walked all over, loved seeing all the major sights, eating in the cool cafes, and the highlight of our trip was the Tesla Museum. Who would have thought?
History: Museum of Yugoslav History
Art: Galerija STAB
Restaurant: Zavicaj Restaurant
Hotel: Hotel Nevski
Skopje is really trying to renovate and update. As we walked around the downtown areas, full of statues, flower beds, flowers, cafes, museums, and old bazaars we noticed such an eclectic mix of old and new. It’s a city in flux, and it’s working hard to attract tourists. We loved the completely different vibe it gave off as opposed to all of the other capitals we visited. We also loved the amazing food.
History: Archaeological Museum of Macedonia
Art: Contemporary Art Museum of Macedonia
Restaurant: Skopski Merak
Hotel: Stone Bridge Hotel
With a lively downtown area, people were lounging, eating, drinking, and having a merry time all day and all night long. The beautiful downtown area had a lot to do, eat, and drink. While we were there, people were outside drinking coffee, chatting, and smiling. There was lots of smiling.
There is plenty to do in Romania, not just Bucharest. We took a short road trip on the Transfagarsan Highway, visited Sighisoara, home of Vlad the Impaler, and even visited some world heritage site churches along the way.
History: The National History Museum of Romania
Art: The National Museum of Art of Romania
Hotel: Grand Hotel Continental
Bratislava is located in a great triangle of cities to include Budapest and Vienna. The downtown area is colorful, vibrant, and full of things to do. It’s well worth a day trip. It doesn’t take long to see the sights of this small capital city, but just because it’s small doesn’t mean it doesn’t have plenty to share. We loved the busy downtown, and we’ve even visited in winter when the Christmas market is in full swing. It was lovely.
History: Bratislava City Museum
Art: Danubiana Meulensteen Art Museum
Restaurant: Bratislavsky Mestiansky pivovar
Hotel: Aplend City Hotel Michalska
We hope this quick guide will help you get started planning your weekend trips to some Eastern European capital cities. We don’t think you will be disappointed.
Have you been to any of these cities? What was your favorite spot?
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